Once a year, here in our temple, we have a party for the supporting members who make Ananda Palo Alto possible. For those of you who weren’t here last night, or if you’ve come here for the first time, the altar is a little different today. As part of our festivities, we brought baby pictures, so there are many photos of saints-in-training, and in the altar niches you’ll find photos of notable locations in India that are associated with our path, including Babaji’s cave, Paramhansa Yogananda’s childhood meditation room, and the small temple where Sri Yukteswar’s body is enshrined.
I’m reminded of the early years at Ananda Village, when we were all much younger and learning many aspects of the spiritual path for the first time.
I remember how I began to understand an important truth on the path, which is that you should do certain things as part of your spiritual life for no other reason than that they are beautiful and fun.
I had tended to be a little over-serious in my approach – feeling that everything had to have a deep meaning. But I hadn’t understood that beauty and enjoyment and an exuberance of devotion are of very high value on the path as well, because they can help us understand what God is really like, and they remind us of the astral world where it’s easier to create beautiful things, and where we live a little closer to our spiritual nature.
At any rate, we started a tradition of celebrating Swami’s birthday on May 19 every year, in a beautiful environment that we would create just for the day. We would get together and troupe over to a little meadow that was very secluded and hidden in a fold of the hills not far from where The Expanding Light retreat would later be built.
We would carry colorful cloths and rugs and canopies and furniture to the meadow and create a wonderful reality for the few hours of our celebration, and then we would take it all down and return the meadow to its pristine condition.
Those few hours that we spent celebrating Swamiji’s birthday were very precious and sweet in my memory. There’s a photo that shows a little girl, Gyandevi, dressed in her colorful Indian sari. Swami is seated in his chair and Gyandevi is throwing rose petals on him, and in the background you can see the adults and children laughing.
Those wonderful moments remain fresh in my memory, whereas other, seemingly more important events have long since faded.
I remember a satsang that Swamiji gave at his home in the early days, where he made a memorable statement. I’ll reveal his words shortly, but first I’ll set the scene.
Swamiji was in a very elevated state of mind that evening. He was often in an elevated state, but he usually kept it hidden. This was in the early 1970s, when the whole of Ananda could fit comfortably in the living room of his dome, which is now part of Crystal Hermitage.
So there were thirty or forty of us, and because the dome was gas-lit, a dark and meditative mood would descend inside the dome after nightfall, and beyond the windows there was no visible light at all, just the pitch-dark forest.
It was a wonderful atmosphere of remoteness and isolation. Most of us didn’t have cars, so we would hike through the woods, and even if you drove, you had to walk the last hundred yards through the dark forest, and by the time you got to this little enclave you felt that you had cut your ties to the outside world. And it was a glorious feeling, because there was so little that you could bring with you of your external life.
We were living in world that was completely separate and apart from the greater society – which is a large part of what we’re trying to do all the time on the spiritual path. We’re trying to live in a dimension of reality that is outside of our ordinary outward existence. And on this particular occasion, Swami just took us all with him. And when the satsang ended, he said, speaking from a very different level of consciousness: “When final liberation comes and you look at all of these incarnations, you realize that it was God who did it all.”
He wasn’t talking about a mere handful of incarnations, but millions of lives. Paramhansa Yogananda said that he could remember as far back as when he was a diamond. And you hardly know what to think of that.
When Master mentioned his memory of being a diamond, he was talking about the point in our soul’s long evolution when our expression on this earthly plane begins, and we are starting out on the long journey of the “I,” and the unique individuality with which God has endowered us. And at the end of the journey, when we stand at the point of merging back into the divine source, we realize that we were never separate.
On another occasion, Swamiji said that just before you merge into that oneness, there’s a moment of intense loneliness, because you realize that you are absolutely solitary. And isn’t that the strangest thing? Because until that moment we are always living in duality, forever looking outward for what we’re seeking – for comfort, love, affection, and friendship.
And then you come to the point of realization, where you realize that you are solitary and that there is no other, and that there has never been another.
Swami said, “And then there’s this moment of intense loneliness, but it’s almost immediately replaced by a feeling of perfect bliss.”
I was thinking about God-realization this morning, which is a very pleasant thing to think about. And then the small thought entered my mind, “But I won’t have this, and I won’t have that.”
I’ve often said that I don’t expect to be realized in this life, and whenever I make that statement, I usually get a certain amount of feedback. Because some people will say, looking at the life I’ve lived, “If you aren’t going to make it, with the way you’ve lived, who will make it?” And I say to them, “You should never judge anything from the outside.” ‘
You really cannot tell very much about a person by looking at the surface. And, yes, I’ve had the very good karma to be able to live my entire adult life at Ananda, and from my perspective that’s the beginning and middle and end of the story. But I’ve always said that it’s just more relaxing for me not to try to think about whether I’ll be God-realized in this lifetime. Because I can’t imagine trying any harder than I am, and if there were something different and better that I could do, I would be doing it. So what’s the point of becoming all tense because I might not be something that I simply am not?
At any rate, I was thinking this morning, well, maybe I’m dishonoring my potential by refusing to imagine that it might be possible for me. And so I began to think about whether I could actually let go of everything. And then it’s extremely interesting to feel the little clutches in the heart that are holding us back from perfect freedom. And they aren’t even always attached to specific desires that we might have. It’s not as if I want to go to Paris again, or I want to have a beautiful gown and a lovely home and children who’ll appreciate me. It’s not tied specifically to any of the countless things a person might long for. It’s just a little clutching in the heart.
Now, of course, I had to say, “But, Asha, the whole point is that the heart will always be restless until there’s God-realization.” The restlessness that we feel in our hearts will not be intensified by God-realization. It will be fully satisfied. “Our human griefs, Your love alone can mend,” as it says in the Festival of Light. But, oh, what a conflict there is between what we think is true and what’s actually true.
Regarding Swami’s comment about the moment of intense loneliness, there were so many things he said and did that made the spiritual path seem so much more like our normal, actual lives than we imagine it to be.
We were talking about this last week – how the great avatars actually do experience, as Swami wrote, the pains and disappointments of this world.
There was a point in Master’s life when he’d been struggling very hard to build Mount Washington. Because, as he remarked, in America the guru has to support the disciples and pay all the bills, whereas in India the disciples do it for him.
And then, at a point when he’d been working so hard, one of his closest disciples betrayed him and ran off with all the money. So there he was, with this great responsibility, and he just washed his hands of it all and went to Mexico, and basically said that he didn’t know if he would be coming back.
He had put out so much effort, and it had all come back to zero. And I imagine he chose Mexico because it felt more like India, with more heart quality, and a more congenial atmosphere where he could recover.
The masters feel the pains of this life more than we do – not least because they aren’t afraid, whereas we are always afraid. “Long we feared to face Your love, lest our emptiness it prove.” That’s a line from a song in the Festival, and it’s telling us about the magnitude of what God is offering us. And it’s what I experienced this morning, sitting in my room, thinking, wow, could I let go of it all? And there’s this tension, born of the paradox of our wanting to cling to our griefs, and the fear that all our old, familiar griefs will actually be taken away.
To come back to the satsang with Swamiji, he said, “When the moment of realization comes, you look back over all these millions of lifetimes, and you realize that everything that happened was just an illusion. It never really happened. It only appeared to happen.”
I once asked Swami how long it takes to get out of being a diamond, and he basically told me that it was a stupid question. But I had the self-confidence at that point, which was probably 2012, to say, “I thought it was very interesting.” And a few minutes later he said, “All time is short compared to eternity.” Which didn’t satisfy my curiosity, but it was a very interesting answer.
I imagine that in that state you look back at the diamond, and at that point all of the intervening years, which amount perhaps to billions, simply don’t exist, because you’re in eternity and it doesn’t matter how long it took, because you see that no time passed at all, and there is no longer a “then” but only “now.”
One of the questions I included in the book Ask Asha had to do with the illusory nature of this world. And in trying to explain it, I gave the analogy of how we’re walking through a jungle and we see a twisted stick that looks like a snake, and we panic. But then someone has the courage to look at it and realize that it’s only a stick. And so there never really was a snake, but you had an experience of it as if it were real. And did it really happen? Well, it really happened to you, but the fact that there was no snake is also relevant.
And that’s essentially what it looks like when we are finally freed. We realize that the illusion of separateness, and all of the adventures and relationships and ups and downs of countless lives were just the one Spirit dancing, and the only thing that exists is the Spirit. It was all a dream, except – and this is what Swami finally said – for those moments when your limited consciousness touched into the Infinite.
It’s something that has happened to us all, perhaps not to the point of God-realization, but there was a moment of contact with Spirit that was extremely real. Swami said, “And you see those moments like pearls on a string, and everything else is a misty dream, but those pearls continue to shine.”
Paramhansa Yogananda told the story of how he visited the home of Dr. Lewis, his first disciple in America. Dr. Lewis and his wife met Master in the early 1920s, and they described how utterly strange it was to have this long-haired Indian person dressed in orange marching across their New England town square. And Mrs. Lewis was honest enough to admit that she had been deeply prejudiced against such a person.
Today, a hundred years later, our world has become much more integrated, but back then Master seemed very exotic, and it took tremendous courage to go along with him.
Master was walking up the stairs of the Lewises’ home when he stopped on the landing and said, “Someone had an experience of God here.” And Dr. Lewis told how he’d been visited by an angel on that spot when he was six years old.
Master was able to know that the Divine had broken through the illusory fabric of creation at that point. And that’s what it’s like when we reach God-realization. We realize that the only thing that ever happened was those special moments of contact with the Divinity. And doesn’t that put a fresh perspective on the countless things we find in our lives to worry about?
We are so anxious, and we think that our decisions will make such a difference. We’re continuously thinking and measuring, “I did it right, I did it wrong, I got it right, I got it wrong.” And when you sum it all up, it all comes down very simply to an unceasing concentration of our energy and attention on “I, I, I, I, I, I, I.”
Swamiji told how, as a young disciple living with Master, he had a meditation where he was feeling thoroughly sick of the ego’s endless games, and with all his willpower he ordered the ego to get out!
He wasn’t talking about the ego that he needed to function in this world, and to go on being Swami Kriyananda for another sixty years, but the limiting thought that he was living separately from the Divine. So, with all his power, he banished the thought of the “me” that was pretending to be doing it all.
When he saw Master later in the day, Master patted him on the head and said, “Very good.” And Swamiji made the statement that he had never been troubled by the thought of ego since then. He was never troubled by the thought that he was the doer. He had come to the point where he saw that God was acting through him all the time.
Think of the tremendous freedom of that consciousness, and think of all the things that keep us from realizing it.
Our reading today quotes Jesus’ words, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12) And it’s telling us of the truth that we are the sons of God, but that in order to live in that state we must be capable of receiving him.
I started on this path fifty years ago, when I was nineteen, and I’ve realized that it’s a dual project. We have to be ready to receive, and only then are we given the divine power. And our side of the bargain is our need to tune our radio to receive it.
Most people today aren’t familiar with tuning a radio. Master used many colorful images from everyday life that are no longer part of our present reality. People no longer have radios where you turn a dial to find the right station. But I’m old enough to be able to remember those radios, and how very evocative they were when I was a child, not least because the radio was about the same size as I was. You would turn a big knob and watch the little pointer move across the dial, and you’d hear lots of static between the stations, and then you would suddenly hear the program, and sometimes you would lose the signal and you’d have to set it back again to get it clear.
It was a visceral experience of turning the knob and watching the dial and hearing when it was just right. And the amazing part was that all of the programs were right there in the room with you, but your ability to receive them was entirely a question of how carefully you would turn the dial. And it’s exactly the same as the thought of attuning our consciousness, because the presence of God and the masters is right here in the room with us, along with the call of the world. And, just the same, when the saints commune with God, they don’t have to walk into another room, they just have to tune themselves to a different broadcast from what the rest of the world is listening to. And the thing that is really annoying is that we’re always attuned to one program or another, and manifesting that particular kind of consciousness.
Master writes in Autobiography of a Yogi, “Thoughts are universally, not individually, rooted.” We don’t create the particular vibrations of our consciousness, we just attune ourselves to a certain reality and express it.
It’s why the force of evil in this world is so powerful, because the darkness and hatred and jealousy that take us away from the light are right here in the room with us. And it’s humbling to think of the extent to which we are capable of being swept away by those dark currents.
It’s not that you should lie awake at night worrying that your radio station might slip over to a station where you don’t want it to be. But the simple fact is that our job is to align ourselves with that which we aspire to, and that which will finally ease the clutching of our hearts. Or we can attune ourselves to a current that will keep us playing the game for a lot longer.
I was talking here recently, and I said something rude about a man I had seen who had the logo of a sports team tattooed on his calf. And then God gave me a good lesson.
A man came to repair the refrigerator, and he was close to being the most restless person I’ve seen. His lack of ease with the language only made his restlessness all the more evident, because the more restless he got, the more creative he got with English. And I realized that what this man needed was to become a fanatical fan of an NBA basketball team. I could see that becoming a rabid fan of a sports team would be a forward step for him, because it would give him something to do with his restless energy, and he would be able to calm down, because he would have something to be completely focused on.
But for those of us who are trying to attune ourselves to God’s will, it’s always a question of tuning our own little radio. Not with our desires: “I want this. If only it could be like this.” But, “If God has sent it to me, it’s exactly appropriate for me.”
“But I’m so tired.” “But I don’t want to do it anymore.” But, no – I have God’s infinite strength within me. “Oh no, they’re treating me in a way I don’t want.” No, it’s God’s will, and I need to be calm in this situation. I need to love. I need to be a perfect instrument.
That’s our job, to attune ourselves to the right frequency. And it takes all the attention and energy we’ve got.
I was so impressed by the little clutch that I felt in my heart when I thought about finding God. And it impressed me to consider how many levels we are living on, and how beautiful and intricate the process of Self-realization is.
Whenever I become aware of the little clutches in my heart, I try to say, “Master, what are we going to do about this? Because this is way beyond me. But at least I’m going to try to put it in the context of your reality.”
And then, you see, what happens is grace. “To those who received Him, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God.”
When you’re on God’s wavelength, you realize, oh, this isn’t the loss of anything – it’s the return of everything. And our little moments of delight, like our candlelight celebration last night, and our being a little bit silly with each other, have a very real role to play in attuning us to the right ray.
There were no profound truths on the table last night, but there was an underlying vibration of divine friendship and of God’s presence that I daresay, along with the Christmas meditation and Easter, and our celebration of Swami’s birthday in the meadow, are a very real and necessary part of our living for God.
When I looked at the picture of Gyandevi tossing rose petals on Swami, I noticed that he was dressed in an Indian dhoti and kurta, which is what he wore in those days. His hair was long, and he wore rubber galoshes, because we had to hike out to the meadow, and his birthday was in mid-May, and it was how we all dressed when the ground was muddy.
I remember how the women would sometimes wear a sari and Bean boots – big, heavy boots with felt liners – and it seemed perfectly normal that at the edge of your sari there would be these big boots, because what else could there be? What else would you wear, when you had to wade through the mud? But, you know, at the moment of God-realization, and every time we commune with the angels, that’s all that exists and is real.
I love to think of this life as composed of only those moments, and of how we are just passing the time in between them.
I said to Bhagavati, a professional musician who lives at Ananda Village, “I get the feeling that you’re just passing the time, waiting until you can play music again.” And she laughed and said, “Exactly!”
That’s how we need to feel about our spiritual life. We’re just passing the time raising children, having careers, building houses, getting our hearts broken, falling in love again and getting our hearts broken all over again. We’re passing the time working hard for those moments when we can break through and be with the Divine, because in the end that is all there ever was, and all there will ever be forever.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 11, 2018.)